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Forests and golf

After a new National Development Minister - reputedly a nature buff - took over the portfolio last year, I had hoped for a fundamental relook at how land use is managed in Singapore. I had looked forward to the conservation of more forests and areas of natural heritage.


Not for Clementi Forest, it seems. The old trope of how “land-scarce, densely-populated Singapore must balance the needs of development and conservation” remains.

Clementi Forest. Credit: Brice Li.
Clementi Forest. Base picture credit: Google Maps.

Clementi Forest will continue to be earmarked for residential use, but there is “no immediate need” to develop the site for housing, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee yesterday.


In a written response to Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), Mr Lee noted that the site has been zoned for residential use since 1998.


“We will... retain the zoning of the site, while giving our future generations the option of deciding whether to use it for housing, if the need arises,” he said.


Drone footage of the green stretch near King Albert Park went viral last October, with nature enthusiasts later starting a petition to call for the area to be rezoned as a nature park.


Dr Tan had asked if any environmental impact studies had been done on the area, and if the land could be designated as a national park or nature reserve.


Workers’ Party MP Dennis Tan (Hougang) had also asked on Monday if the Ministry of National Development would consider reviewing the status of Clementi Forest and other forests earmarked for development.


In his response to both MPs, the minister stressed that land-scarce, densely populated Singapore will have to balance the needs of development and conservation. As part of long-term planning, land is set aside early for its potential use for future generations.


Mr Lee said: “In doing so, we endeavour to balance the demands and trade-offs across a variety of land-use needs, including that of housing, green spaces, infrastructure and workplaces.”


He pointed out that Singapore has, where possible, reviewed its plans to retain green spaces that could have been used for industry.


For instance, the Mandai mangroves and mudflats were initially planned for factory use. But the area’s ecological value led the authorities to preserve it as a nature park, Mr Lee said.


Other green spaces, such as Thomson and Windsor nature parks, could have been used for housing but are currently retained as green buffers to Singapore’s nature reserves, he added.


And yet other areas such as the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the upcoming Khatib Bongsu Nature Park were once prawn farming areas. These were abandoned, acquired by the Government, and have over time become green spaces inhabited by indigenous flora and fauna.


Clementi Forest was itself an abandoned rubber plantation that has become a secondary forest, Mr Lee added.


At present, about 7,800ha of land in Singapore is set aside for green spaces, ranging from nature reserves to parks and park connectors. An additional 1,000ha of green space will be added over the next 10 to 15 years.


“After weighing the alternatives and trade-offs, there will be areas that we cannot avoid developing,” Mr Lee said. “Nonetheless, for these sites, possible environmental impacts will still be carefully managed, and natural elements will be integrated within developments where possible.”


He added that there may be changes to how Singapore plans for office and industrial spaces as its economy transforms, with road space potentially freed up for other purposes as the country moves towards its vision of being car-lite.


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Since Singapore is “land-scarce” and “densely-populated”... how about (further) reducing the number of golf courses.


In 2014, it was reported that Singapore had 14 private and three public golf courses, occupying a total of 1,500 hectares of land, or about 2 per cent of the Republic’s total land area.


Since then, two golf courses - Jurong Country Club and Raffles Country Club - have vacated their premises, and the land returned to the State for redevelopment, in 2017 and 2018 respectively.


Keppel Club will not have its lease extended after it expires at the end of 2021; likewise for the Marina Bay Golf Course, after its lease expires in 2024.


Altogether, about 200 hectares of land have been and will be freed up for other uses, leaving 1,300 hectares still dedicated to an activity largely reserved for the well-to-do - just 1 per cent of Singaporeans play golf.

Island Golf Course, south of Lower Peirce Reservoir. Credit: Google Maps.
Sembawang Golf Course, north of Mandai Avenue. Credit: Google Maps.
Laguna National Golf & Country Club, NSRCC Golf Course, and Tanah Merah Golf Course, south of Changi Airport. Credit: Google Maps.

The authorities have acknowledged that “golfing and golf clubs are land intensive”, and that “there is a need to balance the competing demands for land”. And steps have been taken to pare down the amount of land taken up by golf courses. However, the cut is not significant enough. More precious land can and should be freed up for the greater good.


Redeveloping half the 1,300 hectares - 650 hectares - would be a good start.


For comparison, the entire Greater Bukit Brown area - immensely rich in both natural and cultural heritage - covers just 158 hectares.

Bukit and Sime Golf Courses next to the Greater Bukit Brown area. Base picture credit: Google Maps.

It is possible for “land-scarce, densely-populated Singapore” to “balance the needs of development and conservation” - it is a case of assessing whether certain types of development, such as golf courses, really deserve the amount of land allocated to them.

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